In person Roger Shepherd can be laconic, but his autobiography is a genuine page-turner. It’s witty, informative and filled with a wealth of musical revelations about New Zealand’s most iconic modern record label.
Shepherd’s story is that of a music fan who managed record shops in Christchurch, wanted to get closer to the music and ended up ‘…learning to run a record company by becoming a record company.’ For any music lover it’s an entertaining piece of history about a time that has evolved into something nobody could possibly envisaged back in the early ’80s.
It’s a story about both heroism and hedonism, two characteristics that epitomise why anyone would spend the best part of their lives owning a record label in this country. Pre-internet, mobile phones and mp3s, independent NZ record labels were victimised by scale and distance. It was more a labour of love than a career, and so for most people involved it was never about what they got for their endeavours, more what they became by those endeavours. It can get pretty messy!
The book features a remarkable roll call of musicians who established the label here and contributed to the significant cult awareness Flying Nun achieved internationally. The Clean, The Bats, The Chills, Sneaky Feelings, Bill Direen, The Verlaines, Nelsh, Bailterspace, Netherworld Dancing Toys and Tall Dwarfs were just some of the first wave of influential Flying Nun bands that established the label from it’s extremely humble beginnings back in 1981. Equally significant is a look at some of the main players upon whom the label depended – like Chris Knox, himself a key cultural figure, immensely creative, sometimes complex and frequently challenging. The story of Knox antagonising the guitarist from UK band The Fall to the point where he gave Knox a smack in the head (when they were staying at Knox’s house) is the stuff of legend.
The role Knox and Doug Hood played in Flying Nun’s development was crucial. They recorded some of the label’s most iconic pop singles and EPs on Chris’s Teac 4-track… to say nothing of Knox’s artwork and video production that defined the aesthetics characterising much of the Flying Nun image.
Roger Shepherd doesn’t get mired in the details because he writes in such a casual, relatable style, but still provides enough intimate details that help paint a vivid picture of how Flying Nun developed. The label’s artistic strike rate went on to define the so-called ‘Dunedin sound’ (a phrase coined by David Kilgour who has regretted it ever since).
Within a year, Flying Nun ‘…had become less a little, niche record label and more a large, sprawling and rather eccentric record company.’
Flying Nun had a distinct attraction for lovers of the artifact in the same way that Stiff Records and the likes celebrated the 45 rpm single, the EPs and the gloriously anti-business stance of creating a business. The packaging alone made these releases something to own and overseas record collectors quickly identified the collectability of Flying Nun’s growing catalogue.
As Shepherd writes, there has always been ‘the next big thing’ and for a moment Dunedin was it. ’What was key at the time, however, was the small but powerful scene that existed in Dunedin, for without a real social base none of this would have happened or developed in the way it did.’ As he observes, the city ‘…had a real but subtle influence on music internationally.’ Flying Nun never exhibited a genuine policy of perceptible A&R – it was more a word of mouth policy of artists bringing other artists into the fold.
‘I was always one for wild enthusiasms rather than anything considered and cautious. That was the basis of the label’s origins, success and survival so far.’
The chapter on The Chills should be prescribed reading for young musicians. The trail of NZ bands going to the UK only to return in a state close to tatters is legendary. The Chills did better than most, and in some respects cleared a path for those who were to follow.
From the perspective of international credibility, Flying Nun was light years ahead of any other NZ record label including the majors. The label’s fast-growing catalogue was benefitting from overseas mail order, and interest from UK music papers like NME and distributors like Normal in Germany. Shepherd’s own trip in 1985 to Europe and the UK resulted in more contacts and the first full length Flying Nun sampler called ‘Tuatara’. The fact that no one overseas knew what a tuatara was, didn’t detract from positive feedback and a growing international reputation. Indeed that sort of naivety just makes the Flying Nun story more endearing.
Shepherd and Flying Nun eventually made the migration to Auckland, established a manufacturing and distribution deal with WEA, and signed a host of bands including Straitjacket Fits, JPSE and the Headless Chickens. Despite by now turning over a million a year the label was perpetually cash poor. Money worries come with the territory.
Australia’s Mushroom Records provided a solution and so Flying Nun moved to Mushroom’s distributor, Festival Records, a wonderful creative hub of a label. It was a good mix, probably the best the label ever had. Festival ceased to exist in 2005. Shepherd always had an appreciation of the bigger picture and Flying Nun had a massive international credibility.
He even flew English and European journalists out to NZ for ‘Nunfest’ in 1996 when the label was celebrating its 15th anniversary with a high profile NZ label tour. ‘There are little victories, but the bigger fairy tale success proved elusive’, he notes.
The part of the book that intrigued me most was when he relocated to London to push Flying Nun’s activities in the UK and Europe. I remember him telling me that back in the ’80s and ’90s the English music press was an artist’s entry point into New York. He was bang on, but it was a knife edge game – the same English music press were not above building artists up only to tear them down later.
Visiting the Flying Nun office in London once in 2001 I was incredibly impressed, but at the same time wondered how it all worked. I had lived in London and was privy to some of the machinations of how labels there worked. Stiff Records couldn’t survive, so it really impressed me that Shepherd was getting by. Ultimately it didn’t work out.
‘You could spend too much money figuring out how everything worked, before suddenly having to trim your costs and trying to make the business run smoothly. And as I would soon discover, things rarely run smoothly for long.’ What brought the London episode to a close were forces far bigger than himself, Flying Nun and Mushroom Records put together. A combination of where the recording business was heading along with Shepherd’s own personal issues.
Running a record label, albeit one aligned with a hugely successful business partner, always comes with stress-related costs. Flying Nun remains a strangely fascinating label and In Love With These Times – My Life With Flying Nun Records is a very fine memoir, an enlightening and fascinating contribution to the history and social fabric of our local music culture. A lot of great music has been made in this country, and Roger Shepherd and Flying Nun have left an extraordinary legacy. Great label, great book!
Published by Harper Collins, rrp $37